The relationship between individual differences in gray matter volume and religiosity and mystical experiences: A preregistered voxel-based morphometry study

Eur J Neurosci. 2020 Feb;51(3):850-865. doi: 10.1111/ejn.14563. Epub 2019 Sep 23.


The neural substrates of religious belief and experience are an intriguing though contentious topic. Here, we had the unique opportunity to establish the relation between validated measures of religiosity and gray matter volume in a large sample of participants (N = 211). In this registered report, we conducted a confirmatory voxel-based morphometry analysis to test three central hypotheses regarding the relationship between religiosity and mystical experiences and gray matter volume. The preregisterered hypotheses, analysis plan, preprocessing and analysis code and statistical brain maps are all available from online repositories. By using a region-of-interest analysis, we found no evidence that religiosity is associated with a reduced volume of the orbito-frontal cortex and changes in the structure of the bilateral inferior parietal lobes. Neither did we find support for the notion that mystical experiences are associated with a reduced volume of the hippocampus, the right middle temporal gyrus or with the inferior parietal lobes. A whole-brain analysis furthermore indicated that no structural brain differences were found in association with religiosity and mystical experiences. We believe that the search for the neural correlates of religious beliefs and experiences should therefore shift focus from studying structural brain differences to a functional and multivariate approach.

Keywords: gray matter volume; mystical experience; religiosity; structural brain differences; voxel-based morphometry.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Gray Matter* / diagnostic imaging
  • Humans
  • Individuality*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Religion